NSF makes Florida universities national hub for hurricane mitigation research

FIU's Wall of Wind

FIU’s Wall of Wind

The National Science Foundation today announced grants to Florida International University and University of Florida totaling nearly $8 million that will position the state to become a national hub for research into making homes and businesses safer in hurricanes and tornadoes.

FIU’s Wall of Wind and UF’s Powell Family Structures and Materials Laboratory are now among seven labs in the nation with the designation of “Experimental Facilities” under the Natural Hazards Engineering Research Infrastructure (NHERI) program, and the only two dedicated to studying extreme wind events. The facilities will attract NSF-funded researchers from throughout the nation who are working on wind engineering projects and are part of a network of scientists who study different aspects of natural hazards.

“These awards highlight the groundbreaking work supported by Florida’s public universities and underscore the value of multi-disciplinary collaboration and investment in research that leads to economic development in our state and across the nation,” said Chancellor for the Florida State University System Marshall Criser III.

FIU’s Wall of Wind is the nation’s only full-scale simulator capable of producing Category 5 hurricane (157+ mph) winds. The 12-fan 8,400 horsepower system was inaugurated in 2012, on the 20th anniversary of Hurricane Andrew’s devastating blow to South Florida. The Wall of Wind was developed with public and private funding over nearly 10 years, and capped by a $7.5 million State of Florida Center of Excellence award in 2008. Since then, the Center of Excellence has secured projects and awards totaling more than $9 million.

A team from FIU’s Extreme Events Institute (EEI) and International Hurricane Research Center (IHRC), led by principal investigator and associate professor of civil and environmental engineering Arindam Gan Chowdhury, was awarded a five-year NHERI grant for nearly $4.1 million.

“At FIU we are committed to solving problems for our community, our state and the nation,” said FIU President Mark B. Rosenberg. “This NSF designation tells us we are on the right track and inspires us to push ahead with research-driven innovation to foster economic development and job creation.”

UF will receive $3.6 million to give top experts across the country access to a one-of-a-kind wind tunnel that tunes its wind field to test bridge and building models in terrains ranging from marine to terrestrial conditions. Civil, mechanical and electrical engineering students designed and built its ‘Terraformer’ system, which changes terrains on the fly. Researchers will also use dynamic pressure loading actuators—machines that ‘replay’ realistic wind loads to test buildings. The largest can replicate extreme wind loads from an EF5 tornado, the strongest wind event on the planet. The $4 million system was primarily funded by Henry Upjohn II through Michigan-based Special-Lite, Inc.

Forrest Masters and his colleagues in the Engineering School of Sustainable Infrastructure & Environment will use the grant to tackle an ambitious science plan that spans from promoting the use of robotics in construction to advancing computational methods to reduce the reliance on physical testing to understand how building products and systems respond to high wind loads.

With the grant, UF also will support military veterans returning to school, with emphasis on hiring those with service-connected disabilities. Masters and Chowdhury will serve on the leadership team for the entire network, which includes the supercomputing center at UT Austin.

“The University of Florida is honored to be selected by the NSF to provide a national resource that will be used by researchers throughout the US,” said David Norton, UF’s vice president for research. “This speaks volumes to our prowess as a research university.”

Downloadable images of FIU’s Wall of Wind are available here.

Downloadable images of UF’s Powell Family Structures and Materials Laboratory are available here, here and here.